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POPE-ANALYSIS Sep-14-2006 (940 words) xxxi

Pope's 'basics' approach a hit, but scholarly talks misunderstood

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

REGENSBURG, Germany (CNS) -- Papal trips are essentially about communication, and Pope Benedict XVI's communicating style came into clearer focus during a September pilgrimage to his Bavarian homeland.

The pope came to Germany with a challenging message about the place of Christian faith in personal lives and in modern society. In conveying it -- to the faithful, to non-Christians and to the world -- he scored some hits and misses.

He connected best when he broke the faith down to its fundamentals and reminded people that Christianity is not that complicated. In Munich, meeting with Catholic families, he spoke the simple language of a parish pastor, advising them to pray together, go to church and "walk with Jesus."

In Regensburg, the theologian-pope said people should not feel overwhelmed by all the high theology and books about Christianity. The faith is not something created for the experts but for everyone and should generate happiness, not trepidation, he said. Then he summed it up neatly as belief in God the creator, Christ the savior and everlasting life.

The papal liturgies themselves, uncomplicated and elegant, were designed to communicate the joy of the worshiping community.

People appreciated the pope's back-to-basics strategy. Tomas Miklos, a factory worker in Regensburg who attended the papal Mass there, cited the pope's 2005 encyclical, "God Is Love," and said: "This is something we can understand."

But it's not always easy for the pope to take the simple approach. His vision of the faith and its place in the world is multifaceted and complex; sometimes it finds a perceptive audience, and sometimes it's open to misinterpretation.

In talks in Munich and Regensburg, the pope developed a central message of his trip: that in a world where religions and cultures risk colliding, Christians must make sure their faith is firm and is reflected in their own culture.

Other religions, he said, do not see a threat to their identity in the Christian faith but in the "contempt for God" and the "mockery of the sacred" in the West.

That was an interesting approach to the issue of secularization. By distinguishing the church's agenda from that of the dominant Western culture, the pope seemed to stake out new ground in the debate over the potential "clash of civilizations" -- or, as the pope prefers to view it, the "dialogue of cultures."

Although he is concerned about radical Islam, the pope was emphasizing that the church wants no part of a political crusade that would impose a materialistic, godless society on the rest of the world, under the banner of "enlightenment."

But when he expanded on this theme in an address to academics in Regensburg, the pope discovered that some of his scholarly ideas were just too dense for the sound-bite culture.

His main point in the speech was that reason and faith must be reconciled in the West, and his critique of the "de-Hellenization" of Christian theology was detailed and provocative.

But he introduced it by quoting a medieval emperor on the errors of Islam and jihad, or holy war, which the press naturally found more exciting. The pope's speech was not about Islam, but the headlines the next day were.

Although the pope did not specifically endorse the 600-year-old criticisms of Islam that he quoted, he did not distance himself from them, either. Thus, the story quickly morphed into "Pope hits out at Islam" -- an exaggeration, but one that might have been foreseen by a media-savvy pope.

Pope Benedict's communication relies more on intellect than emotion, and that, too, was evident in Bavaria. The pope appeared to enjoy visiting his homeland, judging by the smile on his face and the time he spent greeting the people.

But he shared very few of his personal memories. When he visited the Marian Sanctuary of Altotting, for example, he did not mention that he had come there frequently as a child. When he passed by the house where he was born in Marktl am Inn, he barely looked at it.

The one exception came on the trip's final day, when he reminisced with priests in Freising about his own ordination 55 years earlier. Then he set aside a prepared discourse on the priest's "ontological relationship with Christ" and explained in more digestible language that the priesthood was not a management job but a ministry that works with the human heart.

Unlike the Polish homecoming visits of Pope John Paul II, this one had few outwardly emotional moments. That no doubt reflects Pope Benedict's tendency to depersonalize the papacy, as well as his characteristic sense of reserve.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who has known the pope for 33 years, told reporters in Altotting that the pontiff has always been "very discreet" about his personal feelings.

"He always looks at what is behind the apparent and the emotional for something deeper," the cardinal said. That process gives the pope tremendous freedom, he added.

While the pope clearly does not feel obliged to emote in public, sometimes excitement shines through.

At a ceremony to bless a new church organ in Regensburg, for example, the pope seemed thrilled to listen to a Bach fugue blast through the pipes. He thought the event was important enough to give a short talk, declaring without hesitation that the organ dominated the hierarchy of musical instruments.

Then he compared the sour notes of rundown organs to the dissonance that can arise inside the church when too many members are out of harmony.

It was a "Benedict" moment, revealing once again that, for this pope, even the simple things run deep.


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